The use of illegally obtained evidence, lead by a controversial judge and prosecutor, and targeting individuals rather than entities in a case over violating US sanctions on Iran, have raised the question, “Is it more than just a trial?”
After 22 months of preparation, prosecutors in New York have read an indictment in a US court against former deputy CEO Mehmet Hakan Atilla of Turkey's public bank, Halkbank, accusing him of breaching US sanctions on Iran.
Atilla became the only defendant in the case after the prime suspect Reza Zarrab pleaded guilty and reached a plea bargain agreement with the prosecutor. Zarrab holds both Iranian and Turkish citizenship.
This is not the first time a suspect has turned witness. Atilla has denied any wrongdoing.
The case against Atilla consists of a series of contradictions that has led to criticism over its impartiality.
1 - Illegally obtained evidence
New York prosecutors in the trial submitted voice recordings in which Zarrab was allegedly making arrangements in a phone call with former Turkish economy minister Zafer Caglayan and former CEO of Halkbank Suleyman Aslan, breaching US sanctions on Iran.
However, illegally obtained evidence─no matter how relevant─ is inadmissible in US courts since it violates an individual’s rights and civil liberties, according to the exclusionary rule.
The prosecutor refused to cite the source of the recordings. But Turkish officials said the case preceded the December 2013 probes in Turkey, and the evidence in the US case against Atilla was the same as the one in the December 2013 case. The evidence was illegally obtained by prosecutors and police officers with links to the Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETO), which is considered to be a terrorist organisation.
What was the December 2013 case?
The December 2013 case started with an instruction coming from a FETO-related prosecutor, Zekeriya Oz, who now is fugitive. According to his files, a number of businessmen and officials—including Reza Zarrab, four ministers of the 61st government, three children of three of those ministers, bureaucrats and a general manager of Halkbank—were accused of “bribery, misconduct in office, collusive tendering and smuggling.”
In total, 66 people including Reza Zarrab were detained and 14 people were arrested on December 17, 2013.
It turned out that prosecutors, police chiefs and police officers who were working on the case were actually members of FETO, according to an intelligence report recently presented to the Supreme Court of Appeals.
Turkey has accused Fetullah Gulen of leading the investigations through the group's members.
The December 2013 indictments were only the first move by FETO against the government. Two and a half years later, they tried to topple the government through a military coup, with the help of high-ranking soldiers in the army.
The failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016 killed at least 249 people and injured hundreds of others.
2 - The judge and the prosecutors
Former US attorney in Manhattan Preet Bharara filed the original charges in March 2016.
After his removal from his position by US President Donald Trump in March, his successor Joon H. Kim took over the case.
Bharara is known for his anti-Erdogan stance. He has shared a tweet of a FETO-linked website, Turkish Minute, saying “the policemen of [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan's regime have detained the wives of the policemen that initiated the corruption and Zarrab operations in 2013.”
He re-tweeted this after Turkish security forces launched an investigation against FETO members who infiltrated into some strategic government offices over the years and appointed other members to significant positions as judges, prosecutors and police officers.
The retweet drew criticism, arguing that the attorney who opened such a case targeting senior Turkish officials and the public bank should have been loyal to legal norms.
He also shared a tweet of another FETO member Mahir Zeynalov, and added, “Horrifying if this is true. Erdogan's jailing of wives of Turkish police chiefs is cowardly and despicable. Period.”
Horrifying if this is true. Erdogan's jailing of wives of Turkish police chiefs is cowardly and despicable. Period. https://t.co/Z52WM0rEVd— Preet Bharara (@PreetBharara) November 22, 2017
Judge Richard Berman is another controversial figure in the case whose impartiality has been questioned, after he attended a symposium organised by FETO in Istanbul in May 2014 where he criticised the Turkish government.
“It is not a secret that constitutional state character of the Turkish State is under threat and there have been interventions to the operations on December 17. Messages given by Erdogan damages Turkish society,” Berman said during the symposium.
3 - Targeting individuals
The United States has interfered in trade relations of companies of foreign countries before.
European banks, such as British HSBC and French BNP Paribas were also punished by pecuniary penalties after carrying out transactions with Iran, in a bid to break the embargo.
However, none of the employees were detained like Atilla was, nor were they sent to prison, which is a possibility in Atilla's case.